June 16, 2012
Contrary to the impression one might get from some recent headlines, a new Indiana self-defense law does not authorize Hoosiers to wantonly open fire on police officers.
The Week ran the headline “The Indiana law that lets citizens shoot cops.”
The Russian cable news network site RT went with “Indiana legalizes shooting cops.” Bloomberg News was only slightly less sensational with its headline: “NRA-Backed Law Spells Out When Indianans May Open Fire On Police.” . . .
Fortunately, the law does nothing of the kind.
The changes to the law resulted from a widely criticized Indiana State Supreme Court ruling, Barnes v. State, in May 2011. The situation that triggered the court case (an appeal of a criminal conviction) resulted from an 2007 incident in which police responded to a 911 call about possible domestic violence.
After Richard Barnes had a verbal altercation with police, his wife pleaded with him to let officers into their home. Barnes refused. The police entered anyway. Barnes responded by shoving an officer to prevent him from coming inside. Barnes was arrested, charged and convicted of battery on a police officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He appealed, arguing that because the officers’ entry into his home was illegal, he was permitted to use force to prevent them from coming inside.
The Indiana Supreme Court could have simply ruled that as a result of the call, Barnes’ state of mind and his wife’s pleas provided exigent circumstances for police to enter the Barnes’ home legally. Instead, the court went much further, finding that “there is no right to reasonably resist unlawful entry by police officers.” The court even acknowledged that this unraveled hundreds of years of common law precedent.
The ruling effectively barred anyone accused of using force against a police officer, for any reason, from arguing self-defense or the defense of others at a trial. At the time, critics pointed out that with the ruling, a man who uses force against a police officer who is raping his wife would not be allowed to argue in court that he was defending his family. The battered spouse of a police officer who fends off her husband could in theory be arrested and, under the ruling, wouldn’t be permitted to argue self-defense.
While those scenarios may seem far-fetched, a bad prosecutor sympathetic to a wayward officer could easily make them a reality. . . . The Castle Doctrine law says that if someone has entered or is attempting to enter your home without your consent, you’re legally permitted to use a reasonable amount of force to expel the intruder from your residence. If you reasonably believe your life or members of your family are in danger, you can use lethal force. The revision to Indiana’s law simply states that public servants aren’t exempt from such treatment. . . . So why are Indiana’s police officials so worried? Like any interest group, police organizations are designed to support policies that benefit their members. If you have a state court ruling that says citizens can never use force against police officers even when one flagrantly violates the law, it isn’t difficult to see why police groups would aggressively oppose any legislation to override that ruling. . . . In seven years of reporting on paramilitary-style drug raids, I’ve reviewed cases where police officers have shot and killed innocent people after mistaking a blue cup or a glinting wristwatch for a gun. In nearly all of these situations the officers were cleared because prosecutors determined that given all the circumstances, the officers had made a reasonable error in judgment. Now in Indiana, the citizens on the receiving end of these raids will be given the same consideration.
Police should not enjoy any special privileges in the use of force, or in the unlawful entry to private property. In my opinion, they shouldn’t even enjoy official immunity, a doctrine that is as clear an example of judicial activism as anything in the law. Well, except maybe judicial immunity.